Archive for Macbeth

Mondo Kane #6: The Huntington Memorial Hospital on 180th St.

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 2, 2013 by dcairns

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And so to Joseph Cotten, who nearly walked off the film because his old age makeup cracked every time he raised his eyebrows. My suspicion is that Cotten’s thick, slightly wavy hair was putting to great a strain on his Maurice Seiderman bald cap. So in the finished film he wears a sun cap to conceal the join.

Establisher — Thompson looks up at the tall hospital, dwarfed by an even taller bridge. OK, so this is rear-projection, I think — the background was shot previously as a tilt up, and William Alland as Thompson must be on a little elevator being lowered out of view while the camera stays statically filming the rear-pro screen. At least that’s how I guess it was done. It looks unreal yet perfectly real.

Cotten is shot against a strange, abstract, soft-focus background — I think this was shot during the week of tests, so they couldn’t build any really detailed sets. This one looks almost like a backdrop, or a slide. Arguably the shallow depth , unique for the film, has something to do with old Jed Leland’s senility (though he’s really quite lucid — but everybody says the slow dissolves here are due to his rusty memory so let’s go with this).

Cotten’s old age performance is good — he’s trying to suggest weakness without doing exaggerated slow movements — there are bits where his hand drops back into his lap as if it’s quite a weight, which are very fine work indeed. This is another star-making shot, with Welles simply holding on his pal, pushing in very gently now and then, and letting Herrmann underscore with a beautifully elegiac theme. Cotten is utterly magnetic.

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Gainsborougfh girl Ruth Warwick.

The dissolve, aided by fading down the background on Cotten, so we seem to teleport with him into the past — and then we’re in that wonderful snappy compressed marriage seen at the breakfast table, which Welles admitted to pinching from Thornton Wilder’s The Long Christmas Dinner — but applying such narrative devices to a film was still an innovation.

Of course, Leland is apparently describing scenes he didn’t personally witness, and would be unlikely to have been told of in detail — a common movie device. I imagined Welles and Mankiewicz must have considered having Thompson interview the first Mrs. Kane, then decided to kill her off. Emily is so damn shallow here (though perfectly right to protest against her husband’s ignoring her) that we don’t really want to spend a whole chapter of the film in her company, but the breakfast montage HAD to stay in.

But according to Bill Krohn’s Orson Welles at Work (a book I prize), the first draft (by Mankiewicz and John Houseman) had Emily alive but refusing to speak to Thompson. Welles inserted the breakfast montage into draft 6, after killing Emily off. His conscious strategy was to largely ignore the logic of who knew what and organize the flashbacks so they make a kind of narrative sense that’s sometimes chronological, sometimes emotional. Thus, Thatcher is disposed of via his own memoir, which supplies the bookends to Kane’s career, Bernstein supplies the bright and lively early days, perhaps because those are what he chooses to recall, and Leland provides the bitter aftertaste, also setting up Susie Kane so that her narrative will make sense.

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But then Leland’s next memory is about Kane and Susan Alexander, and again he’s not present. He claims Kane told him about it (later, Susie Kane will remember some of Leland’s memories).

Welles cut a bordello scene from the script at the censor’s insistence, and performs some fancy footwork to establish Kane’s extra-marital affair without giving offense. Still, Susan’s invitation to Kane, a well-dressed (if muddy) stranger she has just met, to come back to her room plays a little disreputable, Kane slamming the door in the camera’s face once they’re inside seems VERY suggestive (and very different from the door slam at the Thatcher Memorial Library) but Susie makes him open it again for the landlady’s sake. Still, next time we visit this location, Susie and Charlie will have become lovers and the landlady’s objections are never heard. Possibly Kane has bought the building in the interim.

VERY nice dissolve from the street door to the bedroom door, occupying the same screen space.

Kane/Welles wiggles both ears at the same time, but the joke is his face is so wide and massive we can’t SEE both ears at the same time — he has to turn from side to side. Welles’ ears are on the back of his head.

Giggling at the shadow-puppets — wonderfully naturalistic! The real benefit of the overlapping dialogue, which isn’t just a trick — but also the mis-hearings and repetitions and crack-ups create a real sense of spontaneity and intimacy and make the laughter somewhat infectious, which it rarely is in movies. Like Welles, Comingore is at her very best here, better I think than the later screeching scenes.

“You’re not a professional magician, are you?”

As far as the audience’s sympathies are concerned, I find Kane at his sweetest in the scene where he befriends Susie, and though both Mr and Mrs Kane come across pretty badly in the breakfast montage, Emily’s hint of anti-Semitism tells against her. And Kane seems genuinely touched to meet someone who doesn’t know who he is and still likes him. The reference to his planned expedition to the warehouse prepares the ground for Rosebud’s screen debut — Susie interrupts Kane on his way to the end of the movie —  but also allows Welles to film more conventionally than usual — a two-shot and two close-ups (Fiona noted the very bright light Toland imparts to Dorothy COmingore’s eyes here) — and to simplify his performance. “My mother died…a long time ago,” sounds like Welles. And it’s tempting to imagine the little autobiographical touches here explaining why he’s so good in this scene. He may have been the greatest anti-Stanislavskian of the century, but can any actor say a line like that, if it happens to be the truth, and not feel something? Am I getting sentimental? And Herrmann’s underscoring… I actually blinked pretty hard during this scene. Don’t let anyone say KANE is a cold film — it’s just that the moments of emotion mainly involve a not particularly admirable character.

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“Let’s go to the parlor,” — Fiona is in hysterics at the suggestiveness with which Welles imbues this line.

Electioneering montage, with brief cameo by Joseph Cotten, the guy who’s supposedly our eyewitness. Great special effects at Kane’s rally — not particularly real, but real enough and beautiful enough. The high angle looking past Boss Jim W. Geddes (Ray Collins, so avuncular in AMBERSONS) is pretty Caligariesque in its spatial distortion — the theatre seems to be pitching forward in on itself — but the lopsided poster on the wall behind Geddes somehow balances its expressionistic slanting.

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I think the maid at Kane’s “love nest” kind of misses a beat — she smiles intimately at his arrival, which incriminates him in his wife’s eyes as it proves he’s a regular at this establishment, but she doesn’t betray enough surprise at noticing that CFK has brought another woman to the nest. The maid is cute, though — Louise Franklin was a nightclub dancer and chorus girl, and one could get into trouble imagining how Welles came to cast her.

Confronted by Geddes with the threat of exposure, Kane evinces the kind of self-defeating pride Welles may have sneakingly admired — certainly he said that Macbeth’s decision to fight on, even when he realizes the prophecy which seemed to protect him actually foredooms him, was the single moment of greatness the character shows. Here, Kane has the choice of saving his wife, son and mistress from shame and possibly salvaging his marriage, but he chooses to battle on — apparently under the delusion that he can win, though, which makes him less noble or romantic than the Scottish king, And his words confirm Leland’s belief that Kane was in politics for love “Apparently we weren’t enough, he wanted all the voters to love him too.” The paralysed moment when Kane realises he’s really trapped seems to be the beginning of the tycoon’s stiff-legged robot walk. In middle-aged, he’s already part-monument, but throughout his marriage to Susie he’s seen as this lumbering Frankensteinian somnambulist, a bit like the Colossus of New York.

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Defeat at the polls, and the excellent gag with the two choices of headline.

And finally the narrative crashes into something Jed Leland was an actual participant in. With Gregg Toland filming from a hole dug in the studio floor, he drunkenly harangues his old pal for letting the cause down (but apparently Leland knew about the affair from the start?). Of course it’s strongly hinted that Kane’s political affiliations, such as they are, were chosen solely to piss off his foster father, the bank, and its human surrogate, Walter Parks Thatcher. I’ve tended to feel that writers who focus on the politics and history of KANE are missing the point, the fun and the cinema — I never could get on with the Laura Mulvey BFI Classics book for that reason, and there’s a moment in Leslie Megahey’s BBC documentary on KANE where Pauline Kael says something about the film’s real pleasure being the way it calls up the 1940s, which makes me want to punch the screen. Admittedly, Kael seems kind of vague and doddery.

Mind you, the alternative is perhaps to reduce the movie to a bag of tricks, which I could be in danger of doing here. But it seems to me that shrinking it to a political message reduces it more. I guess the parallel is TOUCH OF EVIL, where the “monster” embodies negative political attitudes but still compels the audience’s sympathies, against our better judgement.

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Anyway, Leland moves to the Chicago paper in time to cover Susan Alexander Kane’s debit in Salammbo. Famous crane shot up through a wipe into a model shot depicting hanging flats of renaissance Venice, reminders of Othello or The Merchant of Venice, two future Welles movie projects, and ending on the unimpressed stagehands. Salammbo itself is set in ancient Carthage, subject of a Wellesian epigram in THE STRANGER.

Susie’s performance is lousy enough to drive Jed back to drink, so then there’s another grand gesture from Kane, finishing his old friend’s bad review, “to prove he was an honest man.” My favourite moment is the awful tragi-comedy of Mr. Bernstein reading the bad notice but faltering at the title of the opera: “I’m afraid I still can’t pronounce that name, Mr Kane.”

And slow fade/dissolve back to Mr Leland, the one Kane acquaintance so far who really has insight to offer into C.F.K.’s mind (Bernstein nails Thatcher, though). The others only tell stories, and their stories are illuminating, but Leland can actually interpret the stories for us.

Leland, like Kane and Macbeth, is indomitable in the face of certain defeat: “You know that young doctor I was telling you about… well, he’s got an idea he wants to keep me alive.”

Orson Welles at Work

Citizen Kane (BFI Film Classics)

My theory, Part 1: Welles = Universal Horror

Posted in Comics, FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 24, 2013 by dcairns

wellesrichardiiiIt was at Norman Lloyd’s house that we saw this Al Hirschfeld cartoon, published in the New York Herald Tribune in 1938, predicting the roles to be taken on the New York stage by the leading players that fall.

Norman is top left — Hirschfeld always drew him this way, though Fiona thought it a dubious likeness.

Orson Welles is dead centre, as Richard III with flat-topped head and lank black wig. In the end he never played the role, something he blames John Houseman for, I believe, in My Lunches with Orson.

But the image suggests to me Boris Karloff, and ties in with my theory that Welles was influenced, probably in childhood, by the Universal school of horror.

Was Karloff’s monster a good model for Richard III? Possibly not — the personalities are quite different. But Welles’ putative performance as the disfigured, limping king might easily have been influenced by the monster, who had so recently returned to the screen in BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN. And there is at least one image in existence of a teenage Welles playing Richard on stage at the Todd School with a big, built-up head like the one in Hirschfeld’s cartoon.

Then there’s the Mercury Theater radio production of Dracula, which owes nothing much to the Universal movie but certainly displays a keen interest in, and aptitude for, gothic horror.

CITIZEN KANE’s opening has much of the feel of a ’30s horror film — Xanadu is not only dark, looking, shadowy and surrounded by desolation, it is a painting, like Castle Dracula. If few were convinced by Pauline Kael’s suggestion that Welles’ old-age make-up bore the influence of Peter Lorre’s Gogol from MAD LOVE, we can at least agree that part of the movie’s style is at times somewhat Gothic — and this fed into the 1943 JANE EYRE, which Welles influenced greatly (though he disparages the production in My Dinners with Orson.

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And Welles’ MACBETH would be the clincher — I’m certain Welles said something, somewhere, about BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN being a visual influence on his papier-mache and dry-ice Scotland, “a violent charcoal sketch of a great play.” Whale occupies exalted ground, since Welles has comparatively few cinematic antecedents — he borrows liberally from Eisenstein in his first two Shakespeare films, and the smooth matching of his theatrical sensibility with Gregg Toland’s cinematic one obviously helped form him as a filmmaker, but apart from that, Whale is just about the only source you can point to. (He learned basic film grammar from running STAGECOACH, and maybe there’s some stylistic influence — but nothing that couldn’t be explained easier by Toland’s help and Welles’ pre-existing fondness for chiaroscuro.)

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Part two of my theory tomorrow, and starting soon — a major Shadowplay series on CITIZEN KANE. What else is there to say about that film? Maybe nothing, but I will say it with different punctuation.

Roman Ruminations

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on September 9, 2011 by dcairns

It having been a while since I pitched anything to Moving Image Source, I jumped at the prospect of writing a piece on Roman Polanski, everybody’s favourite “evil, profligate dwarf,” who has a new film, CARNAGE, coming soon and a retrospective coming at MOMA in New York.

The piece is now done and up and can be accessed by a click on this word: RONDO.

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